By Barry Jagoda
The brilliant Gustav Mahler occupies a prominent role as a transition figure between the great classical composers of earlier times and our own.
Mahler came up on the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s birth and was unquestionably the greatest conductor of his time, leaving also dozens of compositions.
At the end of his life musical genius Johnnes Brahms was persuaded to hear Mahler, then saying “I had no idea music could be this good.”
Born as a German-speaking Jew of humble circumstances, Mahler was passionate about music from his earliest childhood. One day a parade outside his home in Bohemia (then part of the Austrian Empire) came by and the seven-year-old got so excited he raced outside wearing only a shirt to join in the fun.
Maturing, his music was drawn from influences all about him. But the themes of innocence, grief and a kind of resurrection are apparent in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony—which includes also some of the most beautiful music written.
Particularly appropriate for this program was the featured role for soprano Joelle Harvey, who brought an unforgettable conclusion to Mahler’s Fourth. Harvey also gave life to another vision of childhood innocence on the program, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”
Somewhat overshadowed in the weekend’s concertizing was the third of the evening’s presentations, Frederick Delius’ “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” from Romeo and Juliet, a retelling of Shakespeare’s play.
But the audience came for Mahler.
One of 14 children, with seven of his siblings dying early, including one suicide, Mahler was always acquainted the injustices of life, including the early death of one of the two that resulted from his marriage to Alma, 21 years his junior. In a famous encounter, in 1910 with Sigmund Freud, the preeminent psychiatrist, Mahler was reminded that Alma’s full name, Alma Marie, was a clear indication of the composer’s life-long passion for his own mother, named Marie.
But there was another side to pain and grief: feeling of loneliness and innocence, out of which arose such beautiful music as heard in the Fourth, the composer’s friendliest. Opening with the sound of sleigh bells and looking ahead to the finale with it’s portrait of heaven, there finding “a clear blue sky” glowing with a child’s sense of wonder and joy as expressed by the soprano singing the explanatory phrase, “There is no such music on earth.”
Mahler’s philosophy of composition was that his works should be “about the entire universe.” Everything in nature the composer heard would end up in a piece of his interest, as he lived a life searching for meaning.
On this same weekend evening program, the San Diego Symphony presented a James Barber composition resulting from a posthumous sudden stream of consciousness–by the famous author James Agee, who grew up in Knoxville. The normally restrained author of symphony program notes, Eric Bromberger, wrote. “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” may be the single most beautiful creation in American music.
A special treat for the audience was Joelle Harvey’s rendition in “Knoxville” of a five-year-old child’s moments of security and warmth. The words of innocence and love were displayed on a large rear-screen projector as the soprano beautifully sang of the childlike simplicity of the moments.
Her rendition, from the German, of the Fourth Movement of the Mahler Fourth Symphony was the perfect way to end this extraordinary evening.
Barry Jagoda, an award-winning broadcast journalist, was special assistant to President Carter for media and public affairs. He is a 1967 graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and lives in La Jolla
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